On 10th of April 2017 Champaran Satyagraha turns 100 years old.
Champaran was a revelation in the annals of Indian freedom struggle. It brought about a hitherto unheard of methodology of taking on the imperial oppression with a force more powerful than all the physical might put together. Gandhi called it Satyagraha. The outcome of Champaran redefined the concept of and approach to political freedom, and gave a vibrant twist to the whole British -Indian equation.
All started with Indigo-
Indigo was a celebrated product of India, down the centuries, raised and processed locally by peasants. But in the 17th century, European-owned slave plantations in the West Indies also began to produce it, the extraction process they used being improved immensely by use of boilers. When the English conquered Bengal, European indigo planters appeared there soon enough. Obtaining zamindaris, they coerced peasants into raising indigo for the dye to be processed out of the plants in their ‘factories’. The coercion exercised by European planters on peasants to raise indigo and sell it cheaply to them – under methods portrayed in Bandhu Mitra’s famous Neel Darpan – led to peasant ‘disturbances’ in Naddia in Bengal in 1859 and 1860. But these were suppressed by the administration.
They collected not only land tax amounting to 70% of the annual yielding, but forced farmers to set aside 3 Kathas out of every bigha (20 Kathas) of land to cultivate indigo plant for a paltry compensation, this system came to be known as the Tinkathia system.
Synthetic dye laid to further miseries of peasants-
A crisis occurred when a synthetic dye was developed in Germany in the late 1880s. Since natural indigo dye could not compete with it, indigo exports from India declined in value from Rs 4.75 crore in 1894-95 to Rs 2.96 crore five years later. As indigo prices and the planters’ profits from indigo manufacture fell, the planters began correspondingly to increase the rent-burden on the peasants, invoking their rights as zamindars. The impositions took two major forms:
- As zamindars or thekadars the planters simply increased the rents paid by peasants, the increase in rent being called sharahbeshi, usually amounting to 50-60% of the previous rent.
- Due to reduced profitability, planters allowed the peasant to shift to other crops but only if he agreed to pay them a large amount, known as tawan, ‘compensation’.
They also imposed abwabs, illegal cess under every imaginable pretext. Tax was imposed on marriage (It was called Marwach), widow’s remarriage (Sagaura); on the sale of milk, oil and grain (Bechai) and every festival. A planter who had a sore leg imposed tax - Ghawahi - on his people for his treatment.
Arrival of Gandhi-
Innumerable efforts to improve the situation through petitioning and government appointed committees rendered no relief. The situation remained hopeless.
Gandhi arrived in Champaran distrit of Bihar on April 10,1917 at the persuasion of Rajkumar Shukla an Indigo farmer, to get himself acquainted with the situation. The British authorities knew that this was not as harmless an enterprise as it seemed. The English district magistrate ordered Gandhiji to leave the district, the order being issued under Section 144 of the Criminal Penal Code. Defying the ban, Gandhiji pleaded “guilty” and ready to face imprisonment for following “the voice of conscience”. It was this combination of moderation with determination that won the day.The magistrate dismissed the case later and declared Gandhi was free to go into Champaran villages.
Companions of Gandhi in Champaran Satyagraha-
C F Andrews, a British fondly known as ‘Deenabandhu’, rushed to Gandhi’s aid. The intelligentsia of Patna led by Babu Brajakishore Prashad, Barrister Mazarul Haque and Babu Rajendra Prasad, Prof. J P Kripalani along with unexpected number of youth gathered around Gandhi to assist him.
Progress of the Movement-
Seeing the pathetic rural condition, Gandhi started with the help of volunteers six rural schools, health centres, campaign for rural sanitation, social education for ethical living. For the first time, peasants came out fearlessly to register their suffering at the hands of unjust planters.
The orderly inquiry, rational study of the case and a patient listening to the case of all sides, including the planters (Britishers) made Ganhdi's call for justice strong that the government ordered an enquiry committee with Gandhi as one of the members, which eventually led to the total abolition of the tinkhatia system of cultivation from Champaran.The Champaran Satyagraha, even though the word Satyagraha came to be used more frequently during the protest against the Rowlatt Act agitation, triggered the first non-violent struggle anywhere in the world on such a large scale.
Lessons from Champaran
Champaran brought about a new awakening. It demonstrated that:
- Not the opponent, but his unjust arrangement is our enemy;
- In non-violence, anger and hatred give way for reason and tenderly firmness;
- Civilized non-cooperation with unjust law and willing submission to the entailing penalty, adhering to righteousness creates a force enough to wilt any authoritarian power;
- Fearlessness; self reliance and dignity of labour are the essence of freedom;
- Even a physically weak person can wield moral force and turn mighty opponents defenseless;
- Freedom does not stem merely from escaping political oppression, liberation from all clutches; from poverty, illiteracy, poor health and lack of sanitation is real swaraj;
- Realizing brotherhood cutting across class and caste strata alone gives sense to freedom struggle.
Reflecting up on Champaran Satyagraha Babu Rajendra Prashd wrote, “the nation got her first lesson and her first modern example of Satyagraha”. Champaran satyagraha will always remain as the crucial starting point, the yoking, for the first time, of peasant unrest to the national movement, an assured guarantee for the ultimate success of the latter. As we observe the centenary of the event, one wonders how any tribute could be adequate for the firmness and determination shown by Gandhi and the unflinching resistance offered by the long-oppressed Champaran peasants at his call.